Blake’s 7: Rumours of Death (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Avon is on the hunt for the man who tortured and killed his beloved Anna…

Series C, episode 8. Written by: Chris Boucher. Directed by: Fiona Cumming. Originally broadcast: 25 February 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (33) is in a prison cell, looking tired and dishevelled, as the episode begins. He’s clearly been through several days of shit. A new interrogator called Shrinker shows up, and Avon says he’s been holding out until he arrives. Tarrant and Dayna then teleport into the cell and it becomes clear that Avon allowed himself to be captured so he could get close to Shrinker. Now they’ve identified the prick, Avon, Tarrant and Dayna take him back to the Liberator as their prisoner. After Avon has freshened up, he then teleports with the nervous Shrinker to a cave, where he intimdates him. You see, years before, the love of Avon’s life – Anna Grant – was captured by Federation forces, then tortured and killed by interrogator Shrinker. (We viewers, however, by now know different: Avon’s scenes are intercut with sequences showing Anna alive and well and leading a rebellion back on Earth.) After Shrinker admits that he didn’t kill Anna and says it was actually an agent called Bartholomew, who was planted near Avon to spy on him, Avon leaves Shrinker to die in the enclosed cave. His only clue now is that Bartholomew is somehow connected to one of Servalan’s advisors, so the Liberator sets course for Earth… At Servalan’s presidential palace, our heroes find a revolt underway and Servalan chained to a wall in the cellar. She says she’ll tell Avon everything if he releases her, but then Anna walks in. And the penny drops… Anna *is* Bartholomew. She was spying on Avon. She faked her death. When she reaches for a gun, Avon instinctively shoots and kills her. (By the way, isn’t Anna a wonderfully palindromic name for a two-faced character? I hope that was deliberate.)
* As mentioned, Tarrant (8) and Dayna (8) come to Avon’s aid in the prison cell: the signal that he’s ready to be rescued is his homing device being switched off. When the trio return to the Liberator, Vila (34) thoughtfully gives Avon a drink – a nice, understated gesture. Cally (31), however, objects to how roughly the others are treating Shrinker. Later, his four colleagues insist on helping Avon sneak into Servalan’s mansion.
* Servalan (18) is hosting a bigwig conference at her presidential palace, which has been expensively recreated to appear like a pre-atomic country house. But then a small group of rebels outfox her lacklustre security forces and storm the grounds…
* Orac (18) does the research on where Servalan is when Avon needs to find her.

Best bit: The masterful performance from Paul Darrow as Avon. Since he first appeared in the show’s second episode, Avon has consistently been the most interesting, most entertaining, most watchable character – and a large reason for that is Darrow’s commitment to the role. He rattles off his film-noir dialogue with a Clint Eastwood intensity and scowl, yet you always feel there’s a complex, emotional man underneath the bravado. The revelation scene in this episode sees him almost broken; you can see the faith fade away from his eyes. Even Servalan looks on sympathetically.

Worst bit: Sadly, one element really doesn’t work. There are multiple scenes featuring two security guards at Servalan’s mansion. The characters are played by decent actors, David Haig and Donald Douglas, but the whole subplot is not only filler but often quite cheesy.

Review: This intense, nasty episode has some wonderful dialogue and an achingly effectively plot for Avon. It starts ‘in medias res’ (in the middle of the action) and never lets up, while there’s craft and class throughout the script and the staging. Whether it’s Paul Darrow’s leading-man performance; or one of Jacqueline Pearce’s best turns as Servalan; or the significant recurrence of cells, caves and cellars; or the fun production design that combines the architecture of an ancient house (doors, fireplaces, even skirting boards) with sci-fi trappings (monitors, computers, Servalan’s strange desk); or the POV flashbacks; or the interesting blocking; or the expressive studio lighting; or the sucker-punch ending… So much impresses, so much goes towards telling an amazing story. The best episode so far.

Ten tasteless megalomaniacs out of 10

Next episode: Sarcophagus

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The Farmer’s Wife (1928)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A widower searches for a new wife…

In a 1963, Alfred Hitchcock gave an interview to Peter Bogdanovich, then a film critic and later a movie director himself. Hitch talked about his career so far, giving fascinating comments and opinions on every film he’d made. When asked about The Farmer’s Wife, though, he was noticeably sparse, saying just that it was ‘merely a photograph of a stage play with lots of titles instead of dialogue. It was just a routine job.’

He wasn’t wrong. The film has sweetness and a few interesting techniques on show, but it’s mostly a soppy, conventional and not very memorable melodrama about a widower looking for love when it’s under his nose all along. So let’s use the space to discuss something else. Where did Alfred Hitchcock get his ideas?

The stage play that this film is based on, also called The Farmer’s Wife, was written by Eden Phillpotts. Born in India in 1862, Phillpotts had worked as an insurance officer before turning to a writing career that produced numerous novels, plays, short stories and poems. He became a friend and supporter of Agatha Christie and lived to be 98. (After his death, his daughter Adelaide – herself a successful writer – revealed that he had sexually abused her for about 30 years.)

In 1913, Phillpotts published a novel called Widecombe Fair and then three years later adapted it for the stage. Renamed The Farmer’s Wife, it was first performed in Birmingham. Between 1924 and 1927, the play was a smash hit in London with over 1,300 performances at the Royal Court Theatre. So it was prime material for a film company to snap up the rights and produce a movie version. This was a standard practise in the British film industry, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that basing films on pre-existing material would continue to be Alfred Hitchcock’s modus operandi for the rest of his career.

As the years went by, there were movies inspired by real-life events – Foreign Correspondent (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), The Wrong Man (1956) – and a few that were original ideas thought up by or for Alfred Hitchcock. But almost all of his 54 full-length movies have plots taken from other sources.

Early on, he often looked to the theatre. Downhill (1927), Easy Virtue (1928), The Farmer’s Wife (1928), Blackmail (1929), Juno and the Paycock (1930), The Skin Game (1931) and Number Seventeen (1932) are all based on plays, while Waltzes from Vienna (1934) is an adaptation of a stage musical. Hitch then rather fell out of this habit, with only two more examples of him turning theatre shows into films: Rope (1948) and I Confess (1953). (You might also include Dial M for Murder (1954). Although it began as television play, it was the later stage adaptation that caught Hitch’s attention.)

More popular with the director were novels or short stories. Over half of Hitchcock’s output used prose as a starting-off point – take a deep breath if you’re reading this out loud: The Pleasure Garden (1925), The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), The Manxman (1929), Murder! (1930), Rich and Strange (1931), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), Secret Agent (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), The Paradine Case (1947), Under Capricorn (1949), Stage Fright (1950), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964), Topaz (1969), Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1976). You could also argue for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) being on this list. Its plot was taken, rather loosely and with no formal acknowledgement, from a Bulldog Drummond story. (The 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, of course, is essentially a remake of the earlier movie.)

Of course, Hitchcock’s genius was to take all these sources – melodramas, romances and thrillers; high literature and potboilers – and give them his own spin. In some cases, the adaptation is very liberal. The longer Hitchcock’s career went on, the more you get a sense that being entertaining is more important than being faithful to the original text. Perhaps that’s the problem with The Farmer’s Wife: it comes too early in the filmography, at a time when Hitch wasn’t bold enough to do something daring. Phillpotts’s play is too orthodox, too predictable, too safe, too cosy. And so is the movie.

Five steam rollers for flattening the hope out of a man and the joy out of a woman out of 10

Blake’s 7: Children of Auron (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Cally’s home planet is brutally attacked by Servalan…

Series C, episode 7. Written by: Roger Parkes. Directed by: Andrew Morgan. Originally broadcast: 18 February 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Servalan (17) is on the hunt for a ship from the planet Auron. Her crew capture a small craft (in a model shot reminiscent of the opening scene from Star Wars), then trick the solo pilot into thinking they’re friendly. In reality, they poison him with a virus then send him on his way. He’s dead by the time he reaches his home planet, and the virus soon starts to wipe out the entire population of Auron. Why has Servalan done this? Her plan has two aims. Firstly, she wants access to Auron’s secretive bio-reproduction plant. A scientist there has developed the process of single-parent conception and Servalan wants to create her own children. Secondly, she hopes to draw out the Liberator because she knows one of its crew is from Auron… Later, Servalan is uncharacteristically outwitted by an underling who tricks her into thinking a rival has substituted his genetic material for hers at the lab. As the Liberator crew are also in the lab at the time, she orders it destroyed – but then feels an awful jolt of pain as she realises she’s killed her own offspring.
* Cally (30) asks her colleagues why they’re heading for Earth. “Why not?” replies Vila. It’s actually because Avon has a mission of revenge in mind. Soon, however, that plan is abandoned when Cally becomes psychically aware that her planet is under threat. When the gang arrive at Auron, Cally, Tarrant, Avon and Dayna teleport down and find chaos – the few survivors have been infected by an alien pathogen. Then soldiers burst in: Servalan is behind it all and takes the Liberator crew prisoner. After they escape and race to the bio lab, Cally meets up with her sister, a science assistant called Zelda. (The character is played by Jan Chappell, who affects a fey manner to distinguish the character from guerrilla rebel Cally.)
* Zen (28) confirms the Liberator’s course a few times.
* Vila (33) is glad when the ship is heading for Earth (“The Himalayas are quite tall at this time of year…”), then while his colleagues go down to Auron he’s left behind manning the teleport machine. After they’re captured, Servalan attempts to trick Vila into betraying them and giving up the Liberator: she offers him a governorship, even of Earth, but he stands firm.
* Tarrant (7) is happy to go along with Avon’s revenge quest, and is then happy to go along with Cally’s mission of mercy. He’s easy-going this week.
* Avon (32) wanted to go to Earth in order to find and kill a sadistic para-investigator called Shrinker, who years earlier killed the love of Avon’s life. But when the crisis on Auron becomes apparent, Liberator democracy gets in the way: his plan is delayed on a vote of 4-1.
* Dayna (7) spends most of the episode aboard the Liberator. She looks after an Auronar man who’s teleported up to be cured of his infection and she outfoxes Servalan’s second-in-command, Deral, when he comes aboard to negotiate with Vila. Later, Dayna beams down to the planet to help the others when they’re captured.
* Orac (17) is switched on at one point and is his usual tiresome self.

Best bit: After Vila last week, it’s Cally’s turn to be the focus of an episode. She’s often felt like a short-changed character, one there just to make up the numbers. So it’s nice for her to have a bit of story. As mentioned, Jan Chappell also gets to play a second character.

Worst bit: The episode has a dreadful final moment. With the crew safely back on the flight deck of the Liberator, Avon cracks a lame gag and the others give the kind of hearty yet hollow laugh that only actors who have been to drama school can give. It’s like the ending of an episode of He-Man.

Review: It’s slightly odd to have a subplot about Servalan wanting children – where did that come from? – but at least it casts her as a person rather than a cartoon villain. (The moment when the bio lab is destroyed and her whole body aches with maternal pain is affecting.) There’s also a bit of drama with Servalan’s two lackeys – Deral (Rio Fanning, who looks like a rabbit caught in the headlights) and Ginka (a kitschy turn from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’s Ric Young), who have a fun bit of spiteful rivalry running throughout the episode. Meanwhile, the world of Auron is sketched quite lightly, as is often the case in these kinds of episodes. We see a busy control room, where RP actors bandy about protocol and call each other by their ranks, and a scientific laboratory that’s on film so feels cold and lifeless. But we don’t really get any sense of the society at large, which is a shame. It must said, however, that the production team found two terrific locations for a short outdoor chase sequence – a huge dam at Thruscross Reservoir in North Yorkshire and the brutalist architecture of Leeds Polytechnic.

Seven placentas out of 10

Next episode: Rumours of Death

The Birds (1963)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A small town is terrorised when the local bird population begins attacking people…

The Birds is one of those films with a big reputation. Too big, perhaps. Like Psycho – the film Hitchcock made immediately prior to this one – it’s a horror movie that’s built on its scares. And admittedly the sequences of avian assaults are relentless and violent and terrifying. But sadly, once the trick’s been played, there’s not a huge amount left to admire. It’s a film whose bark is more deadly than its bite. Or should that be, whose squawk is more deadly than its flight?

A vital component to this kind of story is a slow build-up to the terror so we have a chance to get to know the characters before the carnage begins, and this one starts with a meet-cute in a pet shop. Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) flirts with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) and is so intrigued by the confident lawyer that she finds out where he’s spending the weekend and drives there to surprise him. She soon meets his family – a haughty mother played by Jessica Tandy, a tweenage daughter played by Alien’s Veronica Cartwright – and his neighbours. But it’s a slight story with precious little interest and it’s soon forgotten about when the strangeness begins.

Why the local birds begin persecuting and attacking people is never explained. They simply target our characters and the other residents of sleepy town Bodega Bay, California. As the incidents pile up, including an impressively staged explosion at a petrol station and scenes where people have their eyes plucked out, the film starts to seem familiar – at least to a modern viewer. Swap the birds for the undead and you’d have a zombie movie.

That genre wasn’t really defined until a few years later, when George A Romero directed the seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968). But here’s Alfred Hitchcock in 1963 preempting so many of its ideas and themes. The characters in The Birds are pushed to the limit by an impersonal, illogical threat that they don’t understand and they can’t reason with. It wants to hurt them, pure and simple. Also, with people fleeing, in hiding or killed, Bodega Bay soon starts to feel like a post-apocalyptic frontier town. Residents board up their houses, preparing for the next onslaught, while the authorities are noticeably absent. (There is a cop character, but he does little more than belittle the threat posed by the birds.)

But the best zombie films work because – like in any kind of successful thriller – you care about the characters. Melanie and Mitch, however, never quite punch through. They’re uninteresting people played by actors giving uninteresting performances.

Six men walking his dogs out of 10

Blake’s 7: City at the Edge of the World (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Vila is taken prisoner by a notorious criminal and forced to unlock a mysterious door in a ruined city…

Series C, episode 6. Written by: Chris Boucher. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 11 February 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* As the episode begins, Tarrant (6) has been in touch with a group who want to utilise Vila’s lockpicking skills; in exchange they’ll provide some crystals that will help the Liberator weaponry systems. So he bullies and brow-beats Vila into teleporting down to a planet. Tarrant’s hubris comes back to haunt him, though, when the group kidnap Vila and give the others a booby-trapped box rather than the crystals.
* Vila (32) doesn’t take kindly to Tarrant’s tactics: as he points out, he’s been on the ship longer; he was with Blake. Tarrant isn’t impressed and Vila is guilt-tripped into teleporting down to a planet. Forty-three seconds later, he radios in to say the others can come and collect the crystals. Meanwhile, two mutes escort Vila to a ruined city, where he encounters first an aggressive woman called Kerril, then her boss: the infamous, murderous thug Captain Bayban – aka Bayban the Berserker, aka Bayban the Butcher, aka (by his mum) Baybe. Bayban wants Vila to open a mysterious door, behind which – he thinks – are hidden all the treasures of the planet. Vila sets to work, his fear dissipating as he focuses on the challenge of cracking a complex lock. He also enjoys a bit of flirting with Kerril, who’s starting to warm to him. Eventually, Vila opens the door and he and Kerril enter but are soon teleported to a far-away spaceship. An automated message tells them they are now 3,000 light years away from the planet; the ship has been searching for a new colony for the planet’s inhabitants. Resigned to being trapped, Vila and Kerril have sex – then Vila deduces that the ship has landed. They step outside onto an idyllic planet they dub Homeworld, but then Vila spots expensive crystals lying at his feet – coincidentally the kind needed for the Liberator weapons systems – so resolves to get back to his colleagues.
* Cally (29) follows Vila down to the planet to collect the job’s payment, but find no one there. She spots a box on the floor; fearing it’s booby-trapped, Cally stands back and triggers its explosion from a distance. Realising Vila’s in trouble, Cally and Avon mount a search-and-rescue mission, and are later joined by Tarrant and Dayna.
* Avon (31) won’t let Vila teleport down to the planet without a tracer on his person. Tarrant says he agreed with his clients that Vila wouldn’t be carrying surveillance equipment. “I gave them my word,” he says. “You didn’t give them mine,” replies Avon. But after Vila has gone, Avon realises that he deliberately left the tracer behind.
* Orac (16) tells the others that there are scant records on the planet’s history. But an archaeological survey discovered that its ancient people may have called it Kezarn.
* Dayna (6) gives Vila a gun for his trip to the planet – again, against Tarrant’s wishes. She also declines to back Tarrant when the others tell him he mucked up by risking Vila’s life.
* Zen is mentioned but doesn’t appear.

Best bit: The Vila/Avon dynamic has been great for a long time now. The two characters are like warring brothers: Avon as the cooler, more accomplished, more arrogant, older one and Vila as the cheekier, less responsible, less capable younger one. They spar, they insult each other, they never openly show any affection. And yet, as in this episode, there’s a subtext to it all. Avon challenges Tarrant when he bullies Vila. He warns him off. It’s clearly a case of ‘no one beats up my brother but me’.

Worst bit: The Kezarnians’ plan is utterly bonkers. Thirty centuries ago, a planetary leader reckoned that society was inevitably going to descend into chaos. So he sent a ship, which was hooked up to a teleport machine housed behind an elaborately sealed door, into deep space to look for a new home. Then he recorded an audio message that he somehow knew would be heard by someone in 3,000 years’ time. Riiight…

Review: This vivid episode is alive and engaging in every moment and is powered by some brilliantly rich, razor-sharp dialogue. It’s also a great showcase for Michael Keating, giving Vila his usual comedy and cowardliness but also scenes of ingenuity, smarts and even romance. And there’s a very Colin Bakery performance from Colin Baker as Bayban: highly theatrical, highly bombastic, and highly entertaining. Marvellous stuff.

Nine stupid sons of a slime crawler out of 10

Next episode: Children of Auron

Stage Fright (1950)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A young acting student in London attempts to prove that her friend is not a killer…

A curtain rises up the screen to reveal not a theatrical stage, but the bomb-damaged London of 1950. It’s a cheeky way to begin in the film, Hitchcock winking at us and telling us that this is an artificial world – and it’s not to be taken at face value.

This is a movie about lies and deceptions, about acting and pretending. No one can be fully trusted, whether they’re the student who poses as a dresser to spy on a famous actress, or her smuggler father, or the self-obsessed star, or the man who kicks the plot off with a torrid tale of murder.

As the story begins, a frantic Jonathan Cooper asks for help from his friend and fellow acting student Eve. She has a crush on him, so is happy to drive him out of London as he explains what’s happened. In flashback, we learn that he’s been having an affair with the noted stage actress Charlotte Inwood, and that she showed up at his flat with blood on her dress after killing her abusive husband. Jonathan then headed to her house to clear up the mess but was spotted by Charlotte’s maid and now fears that he’ll be accused of the crime.

Sensing an injustice and suspecting that Charlotte has tried to frame Jonathan, Eve resolves to investigate herself. She stashes Jonathan at her father’s seaside hideaway, then accidentally-on-purpose gets to know a private detective who’s looking into the case. She also seeks out Charlotte’s assistant and bribes her into feigning an illness so Eve can masquerade as her replacement. To do this, she uses her acting talents to adopt a new persona: the meek, cockney-voiced Doris Tinsdale. (There’s a great gag when, after carefully putting on clothes, make-up, a wig and glasses, Eva bumps into her mother… who doesn’t bat an eyelid: ‘Oh, there you are, Eve darling…’)

Eve is played by American actress Jane Wyman, whose mid-Atlantic accent is explained by saying the character was educated abroad. She has expressive eyes, which get archly lit in the revelation scene towards the end of the film. But she’s perhaps a bit too tightly bound to be the lead of a thriller. We rarely get a sense of her being pushed to extremes emotionally. Hitch wasn’t a fan for another reason, later arguing that the part had needed a more ‘real’ look. ‘[She] should have been a pimply faced girl,’ he said. ‘[Wyman] just refused to be that and I was stuck with her.’ Despite knowing that the director wanted her to appear frumpy and plain, Wyman was putting on flattering make-up in secret.

Co-star Marlene Dietrich, who plays Charlotte, also didn’t warm to Wyman. ‘I heard she’d only wanted to do [the film] if she were billed above me and she got her wish,’ the German star was once quoted as saying. ‘Hitchcock didn’t think much of her. She looks too much like a victim to play a heroine, and God knows she couldn’t play a woman of mystery – that was my part. Miss Wyman looks like a mystery nobody has bothered to solve.’

In Stage Fright, Dietrich gives a big, theatrical performance of a big, theatrical character. For the role of Charlotte, Hitch had originally wanted Tallulah Bankhead, who had been in Lifeboat for him six years previously, but the studio lobbied for someone more bankable. It was Dietrich’s only role for Hitchcock, and he must have been pleased to have the legend on board because he – uniquely – allowed her a far-ranging freedom over the way her character appeared on screen. She insisted on artfully lit Hollywood close-ups, even telling cinematographer Wilkie Cooper where to put his lights, and also was also given a song specially written by Cole Porter and costumes designed by Christian Dior.

Stage Fright is well cast generally, in fact, with even interest in the smallest parts. Richard Todd is sturdy and believable as Cooper. Alastair Sim is especially fruity and likeable as Eve’s father, while Sybil Thorndike is her uptight mother. There’s a nicely comedic cameo from Joyce Grenfell as an eccentric stallholder at a funfair. Irene Handl plays Charlotte’s maid, and even the Major from Fawlty Towers, Ballard Berkeley, shows up as a nonplussed copper who shares a scene with Marlene Dietrich. Hitch also cast his daughter, Pat, as one of Eve’s RADA pals. (The character is called Chubby Bannister, which was an in-joke – she’s the girl you can always lean on. Pat Hitchcock went on to appear in several episodes of her father’s TV show and had a small role in Psycho. In recent years, she’s been a well-informed and welcome presence on many documentaries about Hitch’s work.)

And the cast get an intriguing thriller plot to play with. Hitchcock and his writers – including wife Alma Reville, who worked on almost all of his films as a writer/producer – often reveal their characters’ motives and secrets, allowing the audience to know what they’re thinking even if other characters don’t. This not only raises the suspense levels – we usually know what’s at stake in a scene – but it also makes the film great fun because we have to see characters (especially Eve) improvise their way out of trouble.

But one element of the movie caused trouble. Hitchcock even later said it was the second biggest mistake of his career (after a plotting misstep in 1936’s Sabotage). Towards the end of the film, as the truth starts to seep out, we discover that the flashback we saw at the start – Jonathan’s story of Charlotte killing her husband and his attemp to cover it up – never actually happened. In reality, Jonathan killed the husband.

‘A lot of people complained because the opening flashback was a lie,’ said Hitch 13 years later. ‘Now, why can’t a man tell a lie?’ His argument is sound in theory. Storytelling – especially Hollywood narrative cinema – is all about point of view. We experience stories through characters’ eyes, so when Jonathan tells Eve what had happened, he’s simply lying – and characters lie in fiction all the time. However, by *showing* us the fantasy, Stage Fright breaks a vital convention.

The greatest writer ever to tell mystery stories, Agatha Christie, understood that. Characters can lie, yes. But her books don’t; the authorial voice doesn’t. The audience must be given a fair crack of the whip, and by dramatising a sequence that didn’t happen, this film cheats. It doesn’t ruin the movie, which is still a very enjoyable thriller. In fact, it fits the theme of deception and theatrical trickery. But it stops Stage Fright being one of the very best Hitchcocks.

‘You see, if you break tradition,’ said the director about this film, ‘you are in trouble every time.’

Eight men in the street out of 10

Blake’s 7: The Harvest of Kairos (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Tarrant comes up with a plan to steal some valuable crystals, but Servalan is hunting the Liberator…

Series C, episode 5. Written by: Ben Steed. Directed by: Gerald Blake. Originally broadcast: 4 February 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Dayna (5) – looking sexy in a blue jumpsuit – spots a space craft near the Liberator. This eventually leads to Servalan taking control of the ship, and when aboard the president orders an underling to kill Dayna but our heroine just fronts up and refuses to be scared. Later, on the planet Kairos, actress Josette Simon has to put herself through the indignity of acting opposite, and taking seriously, a large, cockroach-like monster that spins cobwebs. She also gets some fight scenes with the episode’s main guest star.
* When Dayna spots that ship, Tarrant (5) deduces there’s more than one – and he recognises the tactics: the Liberator is being shadowed by Federation forces. Having escaped them, Tarrant then convinces his colleagues that they should head for the planet Kairos and steal its valuable harvest of crystals. They ambush a ship leaving Kairos and nab its cargo, but it’s actually a trap – the crates are full of enemy soldiers! Later, having lost the Liberator and been stranded on Kairos, Tarrant finds an ancient and basic space craft and gets it working. With help from Avon, he’s able to bluff that it’s more powerful than it really is and the gang take the Liberator back from Servalan.
* Zen (27) provides some important information about Kairos, then is forced to accept commands from Servalan after she takes control of the ship.
* Cally (28) helps Avon investigate a rock he’s found. It reminds her of her parents. No, seriously. More on the rock in a moment…
* Servalan (16) is initially bemused by Tarrant’s response to her ships stalking the Liberator. (And she does just assume that Tarrant, a man she’s barely met, will be in command.) Why doesn’t he run or attack? She’s then shocked to hear that a low-grade worker has openly criticised her strategic decisions, so she demands that he come to see her… Jarvik (Andrew Burt, giving a hands-on-hips performance of virility and confidence) reacts by grabbing hold of her and kissing her. It turns out he used to be a Federation officer but gave it all up to lead a simpler life. Intrigued by his sheer arrogance, Servalan dares him to do better than her and ensnare the Liberator. He uses a Trojan-horse trick and smuggles some soldiers aboard. After they’ve taken control, Servalan teleports over and swaggers around her new domain. She wants Jarvik to be her consort, but he’s later killed by accident when a soldier nervously opens fire.
* Avon (30) is off-ship as the episode begins, then returns with a rock he’s found on a nearby planet. It’s some sopron, a mineral that is – in a rather vaguely defined way – alive and capable of reasoning. He seems disinterested in the Liberator’s plight, leaving Tarrant to deal with the situation while he obsesses over the rock. Nevertheless, he’s still on hand to save his colleagues’ skins when Tarrant naively allows some Federation soldiers aboard; then later, Avon’s able to use the sopron to trick Servalan into thinking she’s outgunned. (It has the ability to reflect someone’s thoughts back at them, you see. Or something.)
* Vila (31) gets to run the flight deck while Tarrant leaves to look for Avon, and he has some success. Later, when the team decide to steal the Kairos crystals, Vila says he’ll use his cut of the booty to start a family.
* Orac (15) has to grudgingly admit that Avon’s rock has a bigger capacity for reason than he does.

Best bit: Servalan addresses the fact that Jarvik grabbed her roughly and kissed her: “There is the question of that degrading and primitive act to which I was subjected in the control room… I should like you to do it again.”

Worst bit: The monster. Obviously.

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Review: The episode is especially interesting because of two men. The intriguing Jarvik is a rarity in Blake’s 7 – a doesn’t-give-a-fuck, isn’t-trying-to-prove-anything scoundrel who cuts through the other characters’ bravado. Matching him with Servalan makes her more interesting and shakes things up. You can see her develop more in this one episode than the first two seasons put together. (Jarvik disrespects computers, though, so can’t change her that much – she still trusts a digital readout when her eyes and common sense are telling her something different. It’s her downfall; it’s why she loses the Liberator.) Meanwhile, Tarrant – in only his fourth full-length episode – has quickly become a vital part of the show. He’s moved into Blake’s position as the nominal team leader very smoothly, and has also taken over the role of butting heads entertainingly with Avon. The episode as a whole is fun, for the most part. Sadly, though, towards the end the wheels start to fall off one by one. There’s the monster, perhaps the most embarrassingly awful visual we’ve had so far (and that’s saying something). There’s the dreary deux ex machina of Avon’s conveniently helpful rock. And there’s the fact Cally and Vila are reduced to little more than glorified extras.

Seven weeks following the vernal equinox out of 10

Next episode: City at the Edge of the World